A Civil War Christmas through letters

Letters, songs of the 1860s portrayed the gloom of war

Wanda Burch, a historian and writer from Glen, and soprano Gisella Mobtanez-Case begin a presentation titled "Home Voices: Christmas in the Civil War through Words and Music" Saturday at the Century Club in Amsterdam. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

AMSTERDAM — The Christmas of 1860 had its festivities, but it was also a time of foreboding, in both North and South.

“By 1860, many worried about civil unrest, fearful this Christmas would be the last before the outbreak of war,” Wanda Burch told her audience during a presentation on “Home Voices: Christmas in the American Civil War through Words and Music” Saturday at the Century Club.

Burch, who drew from her book, “The Home Voices Speak Louder than the Drums,” said, “An Arkansas diarist writes, ‘Christmas has come around in circle of time, but it is not a day of rejoicing. Some of the usual ceremonies are going on, but there is gloom on the thoughts and countenances of all the better portion of people.'”

Burch used the letters and memoirs of soldiers and families on both sides to describe the suffering the Civil War brought. This was made all the more poignant as these recollections were interspersed with joyful religious Christmas songs by soprano Gisella Montanez-Case including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World” and others.

In elegant, almost poetic prose, soldiers “thought of home as if they were there” and had “dreams of home, food and those they love, looking for peace,” she said. Those at home nourished similar thoughts and dreams, longing for the soldiers’ return and fearful they never would.

Soprano Gisella Mobtanez-Case sings Christmas music during historian/writer Wanda Burch's "Home Voices: Christmas in the Civil War through Words and Music" Saturday at the Century Club in Amsterdam. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

Burch spoke about the letters between Addie Case and Charlie Tenney after he left for war in 1861 from their home town of Mecca, Ohio. He asked her to write him as if they were brother and sister, but eventually they fell in love. Case later began to have terrible dreams of his death,

In Tenney’s first letter to her, he writes, “Happiness, is a boon many strive to reach, but few, comparative, attain, but if happiness exists among soldiers, it is him, who knows that there is a heart which beats in unison with his own, and feels her spirit is watching over him, that is the fortunate possessor.”

By 1862, they were in love. She wrote, “What a cold winter evening is this, but not cold enough to drive warm loving thoughts from the heart. But with those same loving thoughts of thee, dear one, are strangely mingled sad ones … unwelcome forebodings.”

Her dream of his dying, not on the battlefield but on a bed of straw, came true when he died of illness in a hospital on Jan. 15, 1863.

Christmas often deepened feelings of sadness and loneliness among soldiers. Lt. Johnathan Evans of the 4th Virginia writes to his cousin: “I sit and study ten thousand things to make me miserable and unhappy and when I sleep I sometimes see you coming home and wake myself jumping up to meet you but when I wake you are gone and I lye down and cry myself to sleep again.”

On the civilian side, Sallie Brock Putnam describes Christmas 1861 in Richmond, Va.: “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us. … We had neither the heart nor the inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”

These were just a few of the many writings Burch shared with her audience.

The personal pain shown in such letters and memoirs touched the audience. “You don’t really think about how horrible it was then,” said Kathy Miller of Hudson Falls.

Miller, who had recently studied the Civil War with her children in home schooling, added, “It was really touching to hear the actual words.”

“It reminds me that war is a horrible thing,” said Mark Valberg of Amsterdam.

Singer and songwriter John Kenosian of Clifton Park usually gives the presentation with Burch, a Glen resident, but he was sick.

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